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Can Mozilla pull another Firefox with e-mail?

Mozilla has shown that it knows how to innovate with Web browsers, but can it do the same with e-mail? Its record is mixed.

In many markets, open source has played catch-up for years to the proprietary incumbents. Now, however, open source is taking the lead in areas as diverse as operating systems (Linux), browsers (Firefox), and databases (MySQL).

Oddly, given the ubiquity of e-mail, we've never seen a really good open-source e-mail client. Mozilla wants to change that with Thunderbird.

Mozilla's track record with its hugely popular Firefox Web browser suggests that it may have more than a sporting chance, despite a mostly unproductive history with e-mail. Thunderbird, Mozilla's e-mail client, has been around since 2003, with almost no market share to show for its nearly seven years of development.

Could it be that Thunderbird has been a victim of Firefox's success? If so, has anything changed to suggest that Thunderbird is ready to innovate and lead, as Firefox has done?

The answer is a qualified but optimistic "yes." Mozilla just released Thunderbird 3, and early reports suggest that it's a keeper. CNET, for example, lauds Thunderbird's search capabilities ("Microsoft Outlook doesn't offer anything that comes close to the level of granular control that Mozilla has given Thunderbird users"), among other things, and declares that it "rates as a top-notch e-mail client, and it's definitely the best freeware one around."

Sexiest nun in the convent?

Or perhaps inaccurate?

It may be true that Thunderbird is the best open-source e-mail client, though as an avid and enthusiastic user of Zimbra, I'm not convinced.

Regardless, in terms of freeware...I'm not so sure. After all, while not exactly freeware, Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail are both excellent e-mail clients, and come free...with the purchase of other hardware or software.

But who cares about the client at all? Apparently not Microsoft or Apple, whose e-mail clients have barely budged in terms of innovation in years. They're great products, but they're still essentially the same as they were when I started using them at the beginning of the decade.

Only Zimbra really pushes the innovation envelope because it puts more power in the server than in the client. Given how the world is moving to the Web, shouldn't Mozilla, too, be focusing its development efforts on the server, rather than the client?

Mozilla CEO John Lilly insists that the foundation is doing just that, focusing on both server and client innovation. According to Mozilla Messaging lead David Ascher, Mozilla will be investing heavily in add-on innovation, similar to Firefox, that keeps the platform agile while enriching Thunderbird's functionality. Such add-ons will take advantage of advances in both the client and server.

It sounds promising and comes with a real monetary commitment from Mozilla. The foundation now has 60 people working on messaging, compared with just two back in the early days.

I first used Thunderbird four or five years ago and found it weak. I'm going to give it another try to see if it can replace Apple Mail as my client of choice for personal e-mail. Given Mozilla's impressive track record in browsers and its newfound commitment to e-mail, it may be time for you to check it out, too. Let me know what you think.

Update at 5:06 AM on 12/10/09: I originally repeated reports that Mozilla now has 60 people working on Thunderbird. David Ascher, Mozilla Messaging chief, contacted me to say that this number had been misreported by The Register. The number is actually 16. My apologies for the confusion.